On Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 8:30pm, Gary and Laura Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago | Purchase Tickets

“No one my age speaks Ladino. People who speak Ladino are in their sixties and seventies. Two generations from now, when those people die, it will not survive”.  Yasmin Levy, the beautiful and talented Israeli singer-songwriter with an enormous international following, is speaking with me passionately of the possibility of preserving Ladino culture and its language through her music. This language, also known as Judeo-Spanish, was originally taken with them by Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. As they spread throughout the world, their medieval Spanish fused with Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Portuguese and other tongues. Today it is spoken by fewer than 200,000 people and has been named an endangered language by UNESCO.

Levy’s recent fourth album, “Sentir”, continues her innovative artistic tradition of taking Ladino songs as well as original compositions and infusing them not only with oriental elements (her own ancestors are Turkish)  but delivering them via flamenco vocals and rhythms. The flamenco side of her music emerged out of an affinity for Spain that began when she learned Spanish at age 17 and flourished a few years lager when she returned to Seville to learn flamenco song. Flamenco suited her artistic vision perfectly, Levy says: “The way people sing Ladino was boring. Beautiful but too nice, too gentle, almost fragile. I always missed the passion”.

The passionate, raw delivery of Ladino songs made Levy’s first album quite controversial, as she had modified music that she describes as being “holy to many people”. The controversy ensued not only due to her mixing in Flamenco, a genre with marked Moorish influences, but the fact her family history had created a much different set of expectations … “because I am the daughter of my father,” she comments.  Her father, Yitzhak, as a composer, cantor and head of the Ladino Department at Israel’s national radio station, had devoted his life to documenting and preserving Ladino musical traditions.

Levy adds that after an initial tumultuous reaction, her work is now garnering enormous support from the community:  “People are happy I am doing these fusions. I understand that it is very important for their job to keep singing those songs in a traditional way for traditional people, but my job is to take those songs to people who don’t speak the language, and to young people”.
She considers it invaluable to spread Ladino culture and language through the music, as there are no schools where the traditions can be learned – the songs have been passed from generation to generation, and usually from mother singing to child.

Yitzhak died when she was just a year old, but in her latest CD, she sings with him in a virtual duet of a traditional song called “Una Pastora”. She translates the lyrics for me, which tell the story of a lover who returns from being away to find his beautiful maiden with another. He nevertheless vows to love her for the rest of his life, even though she has forgotten him. In much the same way, the passion in Levy’s music may ensure that Ladino culture is loved and its language remembered long after its speakers are forgotten.

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